“Homework’s a pain! I don’t understand it. Anyway, I’m tired after basketball practice. I’m going to watch TV or play a video game.”
Life is hard. Escape is easy. Sound like a familiar lament — and solution — for any youngsters in your life? If so, that boy or girl needs practice in the third cardinal virtue: fortitude.
But what exactly is fortitude? It’s the moral virtue that “ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good,” we read in the Catechism (No. 1808). “It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause.”
Like all the virtues, this one is best learned not by rote but in real-life situations.
Take Jesus that first Good Friday. He showed fortitude par excellence when he endured the scourging, the crowning with thorns, the carrying of the cross and the crucifixion.
Closer to home, Olivia Belk, an eighth grader at St. Gertrude School in Cincinnati, recently learned about fortitude while participating in a science fair. She needed to explain to onlookers what was going on while she conducted an experiment.
“Sometimes the experiment wouldn’t quite work out and you had to start over,” the 14-year-old recalls. “It’s really stressful and difficult, and there are many times you feel like collapsing and giving up. But if you don’t continue, you won’t do well.”
St. Gertrude classmate Mike Wright recently had his chance to apply this virtue, too. Under pressure to write a short story in a writing competition, he prayed for fortitude. “It helped me focus and continue on to the end,” he says. Asked for another example, he says he finishes his soccer games even when his feet are sore.
“Fortitude is a gift of the Holy Spirit,” says their classmate Katie Normand. “It helps us to persevere in times of difficulty and helps us to be fearless.”
It takes a little dying to self for children and adults to practice fortitude when confronted by all the negative influences in today’s culture. Legionary Father Ernest Daly, director and editor of an educational program called Our Faith in Action, points out that the formation we get living by emotions, music and entertainment makes it hard for kids to persevere.
At the same time, he notes, some cultural influences have their positive sides. Organized sports, for example, often demand formation in fortitude, discipline, dedication and will power.
Considering that many youngsters have sports heroes, Dominican Sister Bernadette, principal of St. Gertrude School, finds fortitude appealing to students. She says it’s also one of the easiest virtues for them to understand because it’s commonly seen on the natural level.
The school’s virtues program takes what the youngsters already know and value about fortitude, shows them what it means when rooted in Christ and encourages them to apply it in daily life.
And, of course, the exemplary saint they study to learn this virtue — St. Paul — used sports references to teach it.
“Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). “Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.”
Key to Character
Parents already see the lessons taking effect. Beth Wright watched her son Mike and his teammates combine both levels of fortitude at a recent basketball game.
“The other team wasn’t behaving” like gentlemen and good sportsmen, she says. “Our guys told them to watch their language.” That took moral courage, she notes — not to mention the theological virtue of charity in issuing the dose of “tough love.”
Likewise, Mary Tappel describes her son Chris’ football experience.
“Two days before the season started, he broke his arm — yet he attended every practice and game for the whole season,” says the proud mom. “He never played, but he was there encouraging his teammates every day. I consider that a great example of the practice of fortitude.”
St. Gertrude’s teaches its students practical ways to grow in fortitude: Don’t give in to discouragement. Persevere to finish a task and do it well. Learn the value of sacrifice by forgoing comfort to sit up straight at your desk. And, of course, pray daily for an increase in fortitude.
What about outside of school? Volunteering to help with chores around the house is among the many ways Father Daly recommends to build fortitude. Through this practice, young people learn to give of themselves.
“Sacrificing your own time to help others,” he says, “shows you’re building up strength of character.”
To build fortitude, Father Daly suggests youngsters set small, measurable goals.
“Even spending more time talking with members of their family rather than just sitting in front of the computer or TV” can go a long way toward building fortitude, he says.
Fortitude’s sub-virtue of patience comes into play, too. St. Gertrude student Alex Perra, 14, can use what he has learned and practiced to help others now. Says Perra, “When my little brother Andrew has a project and he gets discouraged, I tell him to keep going and finish the project.”
Fortitude is often taught by wordless example, as Father Daly points out.
“Parents, by the fact they’re persevering in their marriage and commitment to their children, are already showing fortitude to the children,” he says.
Mom and Dad add inspiration to education when they show “patience in the midst of difficulties such as sickness in the family, helping take care of older persons, or moments of economic difficulty.”
Father Daly is quick to add that, when children see a parent sacrificing, they “realize that their parents are often real heroes.”
“My dad goes to work every day to keep us in a Catholic school,” says Olivia Belk. “Then he brings my sister and me to basketball, and doesn’t get home till 7. He does it every day. He doesn’t give up.”
Fortitude fuels this perseverance. And should ultimately help build faith in Christ.
As Father Daly reminds, kids may be tired at the end of the day or have other interests, but they’ve got to look at the priorities. “God is No. 1,” he says. “Your life is a gift from him.”
Young people also quickly pick up on the fact that it takes real sacrifice to spend quiet time with the Lord in prayer, adds the priest. After all, other demands on your time — not to mention constant temptations to procrastinate or postpone — are always beckoning.
And it’s not only kids who face those challenges.
“You really do need fortitude,” says Father Daly, “to have a strong personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.